Last Tuesday night, the week of Thanksgiving, we ate French Bread pizzas for dinner. I had a baguette that was about to go stale, a half jar of Rao’s marinara in the fridge, a ball of mozzarella, and very little desire to spend more than two minutes on dinner. I didn’t even feel like expending energy on a vegetable, instead deputizing 12-year-old Abby to chop up some Romaine hearts and call it salad.
A week later — last night — I was pan-roasting a duck breast, simmering a wine-macerated-cherry sauce on the stovetop, and whisking a homemade vinaigrette, while reading Elizabeth Dunn’s essay in the Atlantic, “The Myth of Easy Cooking” on my phone. (No, the irony was not lost on me.) For those of you who haven’t read it, the basic idea is that the food industry — particularly magazines and cookbooks — over-promise on the speed and ease of recipes. They offer up complicated curries and homemade pie dough as though anyone with half a brain cell can throw them together for a regular old weeknight family dinner…after spending a day at the office…with a toddler underfoot. The result of all this? Dunn, the mother of a one-year-old, writes: “…The weight of expectation imposed by our cooking culture, which offers unrealistically complex recipes while at the same time dismissing them as simple, can be crushing.”
I agree with her premise. Like Dunn, I was working as a food editor when I had a one-year-old; Like Dunn, I was wary of all the recipes we convinced ourselves were quick, easy, and “kid-friendly” to boot. (A partial ridiculous list: lettuce soup, homemade multigrain crackers, a pork dish that called for some kind of dehydrated apple chip garnish…sorry, I’ve tried to block that one out); And presumably like Dunn, I took part in endless office conversations about the balance between attainable vs. aspirational cooking, i.e. no one was going to buy a magazine that taught them how to make French bread pizzas…nor were they going to subscribe to the idea that a pan-roasted Hudson Valley Duck with a Cherry-Peach reduction was a viable option for a Tuesday night family dinner. The answer, of course, was somewhere in between. (Maybe the Aspirtainable? You heard it here first!)
Dunn also writes this: “The decision to cook from scratch may have many virtues, but ease is not one of them. Despite what we’re told, cooking the way so many Americans aspire to do it today is never fast, and rarely easy compared to all the other options available for feeding ourselves.”
Of course she’s right — of course it’s easier to one-click a meal on Seamless than it is to roast vegetables and sausages, no matter how many different ways I tell you that is the world’s simplest dinner — but it’s Dunn’s tone of resignation I feel the need to address before scores of Atlantic readers throw up their hands and surrender to take-out. Her underlying assumption seems to be that we are the same cook from one night to the next, from one year to the next. We’re not. At least, I’m not. When I was a full-time, commuting mother with a witching-hour one-year-old, step 4 in a recipe, asking me to, for instance, brown something in batches was an affront to my existence. (As was just about anything during those sleep-deprived years.) Now, working from home with two middle schoolers…it’s just Step 4. On French bread pizza nights, I can’t imagine I’ll ever want to turn on the stove again; On Hudson Valley Duck nights, I can’t believe how therapeutic it feels to try out a recipe that’s been in my “Someday File” for a few months now. Even after a stressful, busy day. (Busy? I hear my younger self say. You’re not allowed to use the word ‘busy.’)
Anyway, it’s a tricky proposition — not to mention a total condescending cliche — to say that things get easier, or to measure someone else’s experience by one’s own. All I can do, here in DALS land is point you in the direction of aspirtainable recipes, dishes to cook when you don’t really feel like cooking, dishes that don’t crush your spirit but remind you why it’s worth it to stay in the game. To that end: A favorite…
Totally Aspirtainable Sausages with Roasted Fall Vegetables
2-3 carrots, peeled, and chopped into disks
1 bunch Romanesco or broccoli, trimmed
1 fennel bulb, trimmed and cut into wedges
olive oil, a generous drizzle
salt and pepper
4 links, sweet Italian sausages (or your favorite kind — andouille, chicken chorizo, etc.)
Preheat oven to 400°F. In a baking dish, toss together the vegetables, olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast for 30-35 minutes, tossing half way through, until slightly caramelized and cooked through. Meanwhile, cook sausages in a pan over medium heat, tossing every few minutes until browned and cooked through, about 10-12 minutes. Serve sausages with vegetables, crusty bread, and an assortment of grainy and hot mustards.
*We started roasting the vegetables before the oven got to 400°F, which is why the temperature display in the photo says 263. (It won’t work out too well at that heat.) Also, our oven clock hasn’t been accurate in seven years. We were not making dinner at 1:52.